The Unity of the Bible as a Criterion for Its Interpretation
[Continued from previous post...] So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?
Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook.
It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time.
Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step.
Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect — as a way — the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear.
Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end — from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is .
What significance, now, does this insight have for the understanding of the creation account? The first thing to be said is this: Israel always believed in the Creator God, and this faith it shared with all the great civilizations of the ancient world. For, even in the moments when monotheism was eclipsed, all the great civilizations always knew of the Creator of heaven and earth.
There is a surprising commonality here even between civilizations that could never have been in touch with one another. In this commonality we can get a good grasp of the profound and never altogether lost contact that human beings had with God’s truth. In Israel itself the creation theme went through several different stages. It was never completely absent, but it was not always equally important.
There were times when Israel was so preoccupied with the sufferings or the hopes of its own history, so fastened upon the here and now, that there was hardly any use in its looking back at creation; indeed, it hardly could. The moment when creation became a dominant theme occurred during the Babylonian Exile. It was then that the account that we have just heard — based, to be sure, on very ancient traditions — assumed its present form. Israel had lost its land and its temple.
According to the mentality of the time this was something incomprehensible, for it meant that the God of Israel was vanquished a God whose people, whose land, and whose worshipers could be snatched away from him. A God who could not defend his worshipers and his worship was seen to be, at the time, a weak God. Indeed, he was no God at all; he had abandoned his divinity. And so, being driven out of their own land and being erased from the map was for Israel a terrible trial: Has our God been vanquished, and is our faith void?
At this moment the prophets opened a new page and taught Israel that it was only then that the true face of God appeared and that he was not restricted to that particular piece of land. He had never been: He had promised this piece of land to Abraham before he settled there, and he had been able to bring his people out of Egypt. He could do both things because he was not the God of one place but had power over heaven and earth.
Therefore he could drive his faithless people into another land in order to make himself known there. And so it came to be understood that this God of Israel was not a God like the other gods, but that he was the God who held sway over every land and people. He could do this, however, because he himself had created everything in heaven and on earth. It was in exile and in the seeming defeat of Israel that there occurred an opening to the awareness of the God who holds every people and all of history in his hands, who holds everything because he is the creator of everything and the source of all power.
This faith now had to find its own contours, and it had to do so precisely vis-a-vis the seemingly victorious religion of Babylon, which was displayed in splendid liturgies, like that of the New Year, in which the re-creation of the world was celebrated and brought to its fulfillment. It had to find its contours vis-a-vis the great Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish, which depicted the origin of the world in its own fashion.
There it is said that the world was produced out of a struggle between opposing powers and that it assumed its form when Marduk, the god of light, appeared and split in two the body of the primordial dragon. From this sundered body heaven and earth came to be. Thus the firmament and the earth were produced from the sundered body of the dead dragon, but from its blood Marduk fashioned human beings.
It is a foreboding picture of the world and of humankind that we encounter here: The world is a dragon’s body, and human beings have dragon’s blood in them. At the very origin of the world lurks something sinister, and in the deepest part of humankind there lies something rebellious, demonic, and evil. In this view of things only a dictator, the king of Babylon, who is the representative of Marduk, can repress the demonic and restore the world to order.
Such views were not simply fairy tales. They expressed the discomfiting realities that human beings experienced in the world and among themselves. For often enough it looks as if the world is a dragon’s lair and human blood is dragon’s blood. But despite all oppressive experiences the scriptural account says that it was not so. The whole tale of these sinister powers melts away in a few words: “The earth was without form and void.”
Behind these Hebrew words lie the dragon and the demonic powers that are spoken of elsewhere. Now it is the void that alone remains and that stands as the sole power over against God. And in the face of any fear of these demonic forces we are told that God alone, who is the eternal Reason that is eternal love, created the world, and that it rests in his hands. Only with this in mind can we appreciate the dramatic confrontation implicit in this biblical text, in which all these confused myths were rejected and the world was given its origin in God’s Reason and in his Word.
This could be shown almost word for word in the present text — as, for example, when the sun and the moon are referred to as lamps that God has hung in the sky for the measurement of time. To the people of that age it must have seemed a terrible sacrilege to designate the great gods sun and moon as lamps for measuring time. Here we see the audacity and the temperateness of the faith that, in confronting the pagan myths, made the light of truth appear by showing that the world was not a demonic contest but that it arose from God’s Reason and reposes on God’s Word.
Hence this creation account may be seen as the decisive “enlightenment” of history and as a breakthrough out of the fears that had oppressed humankind. It placed the world in the context of reason and recognized the world’s reasonableness and freedom. But it may also be seen as the true enlightenment from the fact that it put human reason firmly on the primordial basis of God’s creating Reason, in order to establish it in truth and in love, without which an “enlightenment” would be exorbitant and ultimately foolish.
To this something further must be added. I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.
In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days. Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act.
In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.
Christology as a Criterion
One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).
John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.
We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.
The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind — with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images.
Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten — this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole.
In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward — that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source.
As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith.
This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation. What the pagan Aristotle said four hundred years before Christ — when he opposed those who asserted that everything has come to exist through chance, even though he said what he did without the knowledge that our faith in creation gives us — is still valid today.
The reasonableness of the universe provides us with access to God’s Reason, and the Bible is and continues to be the true “enlightenment,” which has given the world over to human reason and not to exploitation by human beings, because it opened reason to God’s truth and love. Therefore we must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only therefore can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality.
And so we wish to cite today, in thankfulness and joy, the church’s creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Amen.